He was tennis’ answer to secret agent man. Taking the court clad in dark spectacles, Jaroslav Drobny had an air of mystery and intrigue about him. An ever changing nationality only added to his aura. He was either an exile or defector depending upon your perspective. Following the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia he fled west to the free world. After failing to get Swiss, American or British residency papers he called Egypt home after the country offered him citizenship. Drobny was not quite through with his nation hopping. He would eventually take up residence in Great Britain. During all this personal upheaval he still managed to compete and win in world class tournaments. His exile would culminate in the greatest victory of his career. When it seemed that all hope had been lost Jarsolav Drobny was often at his best. His comebacks were more miraculous than mysterious. They defined both his tennis and his life.
Flawed Greatness – A Backhanded Slap
Jaroslav Drobny grew up surrounded by tennis. His father had found employment and a home for his family at a local tennis club in Prague. Drobny became a ball boy at the age of 5. He was a precocious tennis talent. When he was just sixteen years old, local newspapers coaxed their subscribers into funding a trip so he could play at Wimbledon. He lost in the first round, but returned to the All England Club in 1939 and won two matches. Drobny looked like a future star. Unfortunately World War II intervened. He spent the war working in a factory making, among other things, shell casings for bullets that were to be used by the German Army. It would be another seven years before he played in another Grand Slam tournament. During the war he managed to keep his game in good enough shape that he would reemerge as an elite player. And what a game it was.
Short and strong, the left handed Drobny sported a powerful serve, that he could choose to hit flat, slice or with a wicked twist. His net play was just as effective as his serve, with an overhead that was second to none. His forehand completed this trio of weapons. Using a variety of spins and slices to vary the pace, his shot making was equally effective on clay or grass. His one true flaw was an inability to master a full backhand stroke. Under pressure it often broke down. He was then reduced to hitting a tepid chip or slice. This cost him many close matches at the biggest tournaments. Nevertheless, it did not prevent him from becoming one of the greatest players in the world during the post-World War II era.
Wicked Twists – An Egyptian Czechoslovakian
Drobny was a magnificent athlete who also excelled at ice hockey. Hockey was the reason he always wore dark glasses on the tennis court. Splintered steel from an opponent’s skate had cut one of his eyes during a game. This injury did not inhibit him from continuing to play at the highest level. He would become a star at the center forward position for Czechoslovakia’s national team. In 1947 he led the team to their first world championship, averaging more than two goals per game. At the 1948 Winter Olympics, Drobny scored nine goals in eight games as the Czechoslovaks won the silver medal. The next year he turned down a reported five figure offer from the Boston Bruins that would have made him the first European to play in the National Hockey League. Drobny still had many goals he wanted to achieve in tennis. First and foremost of these was winning a Grand Slam tournament.
Despite super stardom or perhaps because of it, the late 1940’s brought political complications that interfered with Drobny’s athletic career. As a top sportsman he was used by the regime for propaganda purposes. He had become increasingly disillusioned with the travel restrictions placed on him by Czechoslovakia’s hard line Stalinist government. Drobny summed up the situation in his autobiography Champion In Exile as: “Quite simply, I hated being told by some Communist where and when to play because it suited their political aims and ambitions. At the time the Communists realized far better than Western democracies the tremendous propaganda level of international sport.”
Fed up and frightened for what the future might hold, Drobny made the decision to defect while playing at the Swiss Championships in July 1949. He had only a few material possessions with him and would spend the next several years living on the edge of poverty. Tennis would be his calling card with Egypt offering him a passport and citizenship. Incidentally the defection did not hurt Drobny’s tennis one bit. He was already playing at a high level prior to the defection, as a close five set loss in the Wimbledon final had shown. In the immediate aftermath his game continued to soar. He won three straight tournaments without surrendering a set.
By The Thinnest Of Margins –Making Memories
In 1950 it looked like Drobny might finally breakthrough to win his first Grand Slam tournament. All through the spring he was in stellar form. Playing on his preferred surface of red clay he won at Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid leading up to the French Open. Then at Roland Garros he advanced to the final. He dropped the first two sets in the title match against American Budge Patty, before roaring back to take the next two. The fifth set was a tense affair decided by the thinnest of margins, with Patty prevailing 7-5. This was the third loss for Drobny in the French Open Final (runner-up in 1946 and 1949 as well). It was also one of several five set thrillers Drobny played against Patty at a Grand Slam event. The two would face each other again several years later, at Wimbledon, in one of the greatest matches ever played. At the moment though, Drobny must have wondered if his time would ever come. He was 0-4 in Grand Slam Finals and had lost three of those matches in five sets. As he inched closer to the age of 30 he must have reflected upon the fact that he had lost seven years of his career to the war. Would his luck ever change?
He answered this question in impressive fashion in his next two appearances at the French. In 1951 he lost only 13 games over the course of six sets in his semifinal and final matches to win his first Grand Slam title. He repeated that feat again the next year at Roland Garros with the loss of only two sets in the entire tournament. This primed him for Wimbledon, a championship he longed to win. He made the final by winning consecutive five-setters in his two previous matches. He then took the first set from Frank Sedgman, the man he had defeated just a few weeks earlier in the French final. Drobny was unable to sustain his level of play, dropping the next three sets in succession. Would he ever get such an excellent opportunity again? Drobny had no idea at the time, but the next two Wimbledons would be the most memorable of his career.